The Favourite (2018)

The Favourite (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Queen Anne heavily relies on her confidant Lady Sarah to help her with matters of state. The Queen is stricken by the gout and other ailments and so Sarah tends to her every need. One day, Sarah’s cousin Abigail arrives looking for work at the castle, and Sarah obliges. Over time, Abigail makes herself more and more important to the Queen, sparking a power struggle between the two that only one can win.

Under Contract – Director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“American Honey”) almost exclusively use wide angle lenses with generous use of fish eyes. It’s an interesting choice if only for the fact that it’s immediately noticeable. You also can’t avoid the very quick pivots the camera makes as someone walks across the room. Most of the time it felt like I was watching security footage or taking a 360-degree online home tour to really show off the décor of the palace. Or at least three or four rooms of the estate. The Queen is restricted due to her medical conditions, so the rooms are possibly being warped visually to off-set any claustrophobia.

Queen – The visual style may not be to everyone’s taste, but the acting most likely will be. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are two strong characters going back and forth. Emma’s portrayal of Abigail is a bit one-dimensional (being two-faced), but Rachel’s Sarah has some nice depth, jagged edges and rounded corners. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is the star here. It’s hard for me to articulate, but she gives the strength of a queen with the vulnerability of someone who is ill. The longing, the distrust, the pure joy, the machinations, the everything. Then add to it the subtle degradation of health, such as an unmentioned stroke that just appears, and you have an incredibly award-worthy performance.

Hoity Toity – I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the film other than to say that these people supposedly all existed. Frankly, I don’t care because it was still compelling. However, I can’t help but think that this movie was made for the film critics and student types. I don’t see a path to mass-market appeal and I wouldn’t blame an audience for being bored. You don’t close a movie with that last long shot if you’re not trying to appeal to the stiff upper lip crowd.

Biggest Standout – I’ve already talked about the real standouts, so I’ll give the nod to the dancing. Those 18th century dandies know how to get down.

Biggest Disappointment – Even though the film held my attention, the plot was a bit too predictable. Meaning, it was easy to know when the power was changing gears, and usually even how that switch was going to happen.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It was an interesting movie, but I don’t think I would need to watch it again. It wasn’t my favorite of the year.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 119 min
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz


The Lobster (2016)

The Lobster (***1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – In a parallel, dystopian universe, being single is outlawed. If you find yourself without a partner, your only hope is to check into a special matchmaking hotel where you must find a new mate within 45 days. If you can’t find anyone, you will be transformed into the animal of your choosing and let out into the woods. Of course, if you don’t want to become an animal, you could always try to run away. You’ll be hunted, but it’s still technically an option.

The Tank – This has to be one of the more unique films you’ll encounter all year. The premise, in and of itself, is intriguing. Very early on, I found myself drawn in and wanting to know more about the world. How does the process work? What goes on outside of the hotel? I’m invested in the lore and would love to see little short scenes exploring more of this world.

The Meat – Much of the appeal of the setting is the simplicity of it. Clearly, this is a fantasy-like movie (we are talking about transformation, after all), but it doesn’t play like one. Director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos, along with Efthymis Filippou (previously collaborated on “Dogtooth”), intentionally make things as bland as possible. The visuals are intentionally drab, but that becomes part of the appeal. The acting is extremely monotone and structured. The speaking patterns and human interactions are almost rhythmically robotic, but that’s the point. The humor in this dark comedy comes from that awkwardness and in us recognizing the differences between this and what we know to be “real world” interactions.

The Butter – Hidden beneath that surface layer are myriad deeper topics that just might come to mind. There are unanswered questions that could lead to some interesting discussions. What does it really mean to love or be compatible (they are supposed to find a partner that shares a unique trait). They have a strict time limit, but don’t we also put societal limits on ourselves? There’s the obvious link to reincarnation, and possibly the most interesting question of how far would you go for love.

Biggest Standout – Throughout the film we various pieces of string quartet music, especially by Igor Stravinsky, that are very harsh and ominous. It creates a tense, horror-like atmosphere, but it’s placed over mundane non-events or things like a silly slap fight.

Biggest Disappointment – I wish less was left to our imagination. So much time is spent in the hotel and surrounding areas, that we really don’t get to experience the outside world and how these rules affect day to day life. That would have been interesting.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – Yes, I think there will be several nuances and background details that will come to light when you watch it a second time. I’m also hoping to discover the answer to a couple lingering questions.

Rating: R
Year: 2016
Running Time: 119 min
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly

Overlord (2018)

Overlord (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – At the height of World War II, American troopers parachute into France in order to destroy a radio tower the Germans have been using and heavily guarding.  There’s limited time to accomplish the mission and limited resources as all of the planes are shot down and most of the troops are killed on the voyage.  With only a handful of soldiers left, the odds are stacked against the Americans, but with the help of a French villager named Chloe they may still have a chance.  Oh and there are some genetically modified German monsters to worry about too.

Over-reaching – This film is a really good mix of the war and horror genres.  The situational combination plays out about as naturally as the subject matter can allow.  It was really fun to see the easy transitions between guns-a-blazing war movie to creepy laboratory scenes to stealthy war to gross out monster gore and so on.  It reminded me of another under the radar genre-bender called “Dog Soldiers” in that respect.  On the other hand, it also gave me a “Resident Evil” vibe, and this story could certainly work as a video game.

Undercooked – So, while the plot is fine and fun, the dialogue is lacking and basic.  There aren’t any cheesy lines, which I appreciate, but also no one says anything interesting or memorable or insightful. I’ll also say that in the beginning, it was really hard to hear the dialogue in the plane.  I’m not sure if it was just my theater, but after that scene there were no issues.  However, despite missing most of what was said, I didn’t miss any character development.  They all wind up as one- or two-dimensional vehicles used for basic plot progression only.   We’ve seen these stereotypes hundreds of times before and the movie’s horror bend probably makes it easier to accept those shortcomings.

Over Kills – After all, the monsters are cool…mostly (See “Biggest Disappointment”). The makeup is great. There are plenty of gory deaths and a couple of inventive ones.  It’s easy to have fun watching this movie.  It does fall victim to the stereotypical horror tropes with cheap jump scares and some monster running across the screen with a musical sting, but those instances are minimal.

Biggest Standout – I don’t want to give anything away, but there was a fantastic tracking shot at the end of the movie with plenty of action.  I honestly couldn’t tell if it was mostly CG or just meticulously planned and timed, but either way, it was an awesome finishing sequence.

Biggest Disappointment – One of the most prominently featured monsters was also the most over the top and the most like a cartoon one we see.  Imagine a terrible actor at a haunted house and then amplify it a bit.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – I would indeed.  I do think it’s important to know that there are horror elements going into the movie, because otherwise you might get thrown off.  It takes a while for that part to start up, but the intensity builds.  I hope “Overlord” doesn’t end up under appreciated.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 110 min
Director: Julius Avery
Writer: Billy Ray, Mark L. Smith
Starring:  Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

Overlord (1975)

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Overlord (****)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

Tom is a young guy eager to join the British army and help the Allies win World War II.  Quickly, he’s introduced to the new code of conduct and regulations he must abide by.  We follow him as he stumbles through it all; from basic training to actual combat. From his down time enjoying the company of a nice girl to his departure to take part in Operation Overlord, Tom increasingly becomes more and more disillusioned not only with the war, but also with himself and his place in the world.

Simply put, this is a film buff’s dream.  The cinematography alone will make you wonder where the movie has been all your life.  Then when you think about how the filmmakers were somehow able to actually pull off that amalgamation of genres into a potable minimalistic story…well, that might send you over the edge.  It’s a shame this film hasn’t been released theatrically before now in 2006, more than a quarter-century after its completion.  Not only is it an amazingly strong piece of awe-inspiring filmmaking, but it’s also probably the only truly effective experimental narrative feature to be made within that time span.

Every serious film student and hardcore aficionado owes it to themselves to see this film.  John Alcott’s cinematography (“A Clockwork Orange”) is simply breathtaking.  Although a good portion of the film was created using archival war footage, the original compositions are poignant reflections of Tom’s emotional state, from naïve, curious young soldier up through his embittered ever growing sense of despair.  If it were made today, you’d swear up and down that these shots were computer generated.  There’s no way the camera could possibly capture that massive rolling piece of out of control machinery as it rampaged through the beach and then settled perfectly on the left third of the frame, providing the perfect foreground image for the backdrop of the soldiers’ battle at Normandy.  I bet there are other people working today that have the skill level to pull that off, but the producers or directors would have no desire or need for them to attempt some of these shots that can be compiled in post.  But you just don’t get the same feeling from the frames the cold computer touched.  These shots are much more meaningful and powerful not only because they are astoundingly beautiful and poetic while at times being gritty and dangerous, but because they were crafted by hand.  Some people may not think that element comes through the projection screen, but I certainly do.

The mainstream most likely wouldn’t take to this movie very easily.  That’s probably a big factor as to why the film, completed in 1975 has not had a non-festival theatrical release until 2006.  I’m sure there are several factors taken into account when deciding to hide this gem.  This isn’t made with the mass appeal of a “Saving Private Ryan” (although both films portray that battle with very different senses of hopelessness and chaos).  There is a solid narrative thread, but ultimately not a whole lot happens within it.  The movie is very visually based and draws from many genres to create its ever-changing atmosphere.  The aforementioned found footage often substitutes for insert shots and can be seen most of the time the actors don’t appear on the screen.  They also help to indicate the passage of time.  Anytime a montage of war images comes up, you know Tom just got worse.  There is a bit of a romantic subplot here, but it’s very basic and non-Hollywood as it culminates in an odd dream sequence.  The whole film really strays from your typical formula, but still turns out coherent and effective.

Rating: NR
Year: 1975
Running Time: 83 min
Director: Stuart Cooper
Writer: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper
Starring: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball

Dog Soldiers (2002)

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Dog Soldiers (***)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

A group of British Soldiers, out on a training mission and using weapons with blanks, come across some unexpected trouble. Their enemy in the exercise, the “Special Forces” have all but disappeared, leaving only a wounded captain behind. Sensing an unnatural danger, they make their way to an abandoned home. It is there that they find out they have no escape, because the werewolves are loose and they are angry.

Sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. And then I watched the movie and found myself pleasantly surprised.

According to the box and the trailer, this movie is on par with “Evil Dead,” “Alien,” “Predator,” and even “Jaws.” However, I think they’re all missing one key comparison. If one must compare, then why not say “Night of the Living Dead?” It has evil entities trying to break into the house. If a person is bitten or injured by a werewolf, they become one themselves (sorta like zombies). There are people in the house pitted against each other at the worst possible time. Also, there’s a low budget, some honest scares and a decent story with good characters. This movie is “Night of the Living Dead” with werewolves and British people – plain and simple.

First time director Neil Marshall (who also wrote it) comes through and delivers an intelligent, entertaining story. Even if you don’t care about the plot, it’s easy to just sit back and watch all the fighting fun as the soldiers run from room to room warding off those misunderstood doggies. There’s plenty of blood and guts to keep you wincing and saying, “Cool!”

The acting is surprisingly good, too. Led by Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd, all are convincing soldiers. I think this is what truly helps this film stand out from all the other “B-class” horror flicks. Without good acting, “Dog Soldiers” would be nothing but a dumb cheap movie with nothing more than a couple of cool effects and good cinematography. Instead, it’s all of that, but with good acting.

Not taking itself seriously is the best move “Dog Soldiers” could have made, since going into that house sure wasn’t. You’ll laugh, you’ll jump, you’ll stock up on silver. This film can easily become a cult classic, all it needs is word of mouth. Well, this mouth is wording. If horror is your game then remember the “Dog Soldiers” name.

Rating: R
Year: 2002
Running Time: 105 min
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Neil Marshall
Starring: Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby

Mid90s (2018)

Mid90s (**1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Stevie is looking for his place in the world, just like many teenagers.  His home life isn’t offering much with an abusive older brother, no father, and a seldom seen mother.  So, Stevie takes to the streets and finds a group of skateboarding kids that give him the family and purpose he’s been missing.

Dropped in the Middle of the ‘90s – It’s strange to think of the 1990s as a historical time, but it is, and this film does an amazing job of capturing that era.  At times it felt like we were watching a documentary, which I’m sure was the intention.  The choice to shoot the film in 16mm is perfectly suited for that atmosphere.  The slightly muted color timing adds the right amount of “age” and the packaging, in the closer to 4:3 aspect ratio, gives off the vibe of a more independent movie from that era.

Mid-Scene – In terms of the story, there’s a bit missing.  There are several subplots or character relationships that aren’t explored or properly explained.  Considering the movie is less than 90 minutes, there’s certainly room to flesh this out and show us more with Stevie’s brother (Lucas Hedges) and mother (Katherine Waterston), or even some more of the progression and contention in his relationships with the skater kids.  Key plot points seem to be “skated” over.

Early Career – The actors do a great job with the material, including a lot of newcomers in that group of young skaters.  The film rests on Stevie’s shoulders, though, and Sunny Suljic is somewhat hit and miss, although more often hit.  Sunny really brings out a sense of infectious joy at the character’s happier times, and I was right there with him as he expressed the nervousness of assimilation and then the cautiously optimistic feeling like he belongs.  The more dramatic parts and darker times bring out the child actor in him and don’t seem as natural.

Biggest Standout – As someone who spent most of his teen years in the 1990s, this was very nostalgic.  However, even though it embodied that time period, the film’s goal wasn’t to wedge in a bunch of pop culture references. It lived in the moments, and did not necessarily celebrate the time period.

Biggest Disappointment – The story was too empty for me.  Out of three major coming of age movies this year I’ve seen so far (the others being “Eighth Grade” and “The Hate U Give”), I was anticipating this one the most.  But, it wasn’t anywhere as impactful or profound as the others.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It’s clear that the movie takes inspiration from “Kids,” which was an actual snapshot in time and one that I naively thought was a documentary when I saw it for the first time back in 1995.  I wanted this to be closer than that, and it just can’t come close.  I wouldn’t fault anyone for watching “Mid90s” again, but I’d need more depth to make it worthwhile.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 85 min
Director: Jonah Hill
Writer: Jonah Hill
Starring:  Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt

Ken Park (2003)

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Ken Park (***)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

Ken Park goes skating in the local hot spot like he always does.  This time, he sits down on one of the concrete hills, pulls a video camera and a gun out of his backpack and shoots himself.  Shawn is having an affair with his girlfriend’s mother.  Peaches has a boyfriend, a wild side, and an ultra-religious, overprotective widowed father.  Claude’s father (who thinks skateboarding will turn his son gay, if it hasn’t already) beats him while his apathetic, pregnant mother sits there.  Tate lives with his board game playing grandparents who don’t respect his privacy or his psychotic artistic vision.

“Ken Park” is not so much the story of the title character, but rather about the different paths kids in his clique take when dealing with life.  His suicide isn’t as much a factor as the opening would have you believe.  It’s not mentioned in the film, and it doesn’t need to be.  These young teenagers have their own struggles and inner demons to worry about.  There’s a part of me that doesn’t like that the stories don’t intertwine.  These people are friends, but we only see them interact with each other in one long, graphic scene.  Surprisingly, though, that scene gives the movie a definitive point.  And so the other part of me is glad they don’t mix.  It helps to build the running metaphor and to avoid ruining some of the more delicately constructed relationship dynamics we see.

Once again, director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine (“Kids”) team up to present us with an unadulterated look at various facets of today’s youth that might otherwise go unrecognized, unnoticed, or unknown.  The brutal visuals by cinematographer and co-director Edward Lachman (“Far From Heaven”) are underscored with a typical family melodrama look and feel.  There is a lot of disturbing imagery shown here and there’s a lot of beauty to be found as well.  None of it seems all too out of reach.

The young, inexperienced cast does an amazing job.  With the exception of Tate, all the main young characters are first time actors picked from the streets of the community they’re embodying.  Their delivery and ability to connect with the written word is remarkable and just as good as a professional would or could do.  I think what amazes me the most is the composure and comfort shown when involving themselves in the pornographic scenes (which serve a well-meaning purpose and don’t stand out as much as you might imagine they would).

Despite all my elementary, psychoanalytical musings, I have to say that the movie isn’t perfect and will cause a lot of unrest within the audience (and not just because of the visual element).  I was left uneasy with the way the story was told.  Even if after thinking about it more, I rationalized any problems, the appearance of flaws still exists.  Some of it seems overly sensationalistic and purposefully in-your-face.  But behind the boundary push are several levels of meaning.  You can create your own meanings and interpretations from the film and many people can and will walk away from it satisfied for a variety of reasons.  I myself took the film to be good and slightly groundbreaking, but by no means outstanding.

Rating: NR
Year: 2003
Running Time: 93 min
Director: Larry Clark, Ed Lachman
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Adam Chubbuck, James Bullard, Seth Gray